For humoristGarrison Keillor,home is where the imagination is.
The audience leans forward to hear the tall man behind the microphone. The stage behind him is littered with the people and paraphernalia of radio production: a sound-effects man, an orchestra ready to play, several radio actors studying their scripts, technicians behind control boards studded with knobs and dancing needles. Garrison Keillor, the man with the mike, speaks softly, haltingly, making tangible a place that has never been—Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, the semifictional community built from the memories of Keillor’s real Minnesota home town.
The hundreds crowded into the Manhattan theater are not the only ones listening. Keillor is hosting the “American Radio Theater,” broadcast on public radio each Saturday to living rooms across America—some 1.5 million listeners. Keillor emcees a program of music (jazz, folk, gospel, bluegrass, opera, and country-and-western), wry “commercials” (Bertha’s Kitty Boutique, or Guy’s shoes [“Try them on—they’re no worse than any other shoes”]), satirical radio theater, and—loved most of all—a story about “doings” in Lake Wobegon.
Keillor, with horn-rimmed glasses and an almost boyish face, speaks softly in a halting, unprofessional style that reminds one more of family supper-table talk than mass entertainment. Keillor fans love it; the show appears to mock the slick, fail-safe kind of show business to which most Americans are accustomed.
When Keillor is not entertaining an audience, he is often found in an unpretentious set of offices located on Manhattan’s Lower West Side. Papers and posters are piled high; furniture is metal; and staff assistants wear jeans. Phones ring furiously, the caller usually asking if Keillor is available for a benefit appearance or a traveling date. Usually, he’s not.
Keillor in a personal conversation is like Keillor on the radio: low-key, almost embarrassed by the attention, and always thoughtful. Pondering a question, he shoves paper clips or pencils from side to side on his desk. Eye contact is poor; his broken sentences make him sound bored. But when it’s time to bring a point to closure, he looks up, a grin spreads across his broad face, and he offers a witty observation.
Apart from sheer entertainment, what endears Keillor to many evangelical Christians are his stories. They’re clean—at least the ones he tells on his broadcast, and the ones written in earlier books such as Lake Wobegon Days, Happy to Be Home, and Leaving Home. They pick up themes of integrity and family. He often interweaves the narratives with references to Sunday school, Christian evangelists, and the pervasive sense of guilt not a few of us have experienced.
You can’t listen to Garrison Keillor for long before you detect the signs of a family background rooted in Christian fundamentalism; in his case, the Plymouth Brethren variety.
“My people were Scottish; they came by their Calvinism naturally. There was something in these Brethren that gave them a passion for order and for maturity, for a perfect and ordered world. It was hard to stay in it and still keep your curiosity alive, though.”
Had Keillor turned his back on his religious roots? From the religious subculture, yes, but not from belief in its essential elements. A few years ago he told the Wittenburg Door that fundamentalists “believe that we are degraded by nature; that God, out of love, sent Christ to die on the cross for a sacrifice and, as a result of that sacrifice, that we are promised resurrection and eternal love, based on no merit of our own.” At the time, he made it clear that he embraced it all. When asked now, he says nothing has changed.
But you can’t help wondering if Garrison Keillor looks on the past with disdain. And he admits he pokes fun at his religious upbringing. But write it off? No: “There’s so much one would want to say in favor of the Brethren. They were powerful scholars and they were devoted to the Word. And when it comes down to a choice between Scripture and our own imaginations and charm as individuals, we do well to choose Scripture. Those old fundamentalists were in some ways like aliens from another country. That is, by their conversation, they made themselves aliens in the world. Then their children have to gradually find their way back.”
Keillor’s childhood is built on the foundation of a devout, rural family life. “My grandfather (and my Uncle Jim) began every day with a family altar, right after breakfast. After you had your Post-Toasties and your coffee, you went into the front room seldom used for anything else, and you sat there and read a [Bible] chapter and talked about it. Then you knelt down and prayed for as long as Grandfather figured was necessary. This was a long, slow prayer—everybody kneeling, putting your face into the sofa—sort of smell other members of the family. It was lovely to a kid.”
This is a moment for a broad grin and a long silence, almost as if he’s there with the people he is describing, there with all the smells, the glimpses, the routines. He is like an artist who has painted on a canvas and turns it toward you hoping for a reaction. He goes on reflecting upon the family piety:
“It was one way we were different from other people, but in the country you could do that. Then after this was done, you went to work.”
Keillor’s grandfather obviously left a mark on him. “He wasn’t a particularly patriotic person. He never voted. He didn’t believe that was any of his business. He believed that here we have no continuing city, that we’re sojourners, wanderers. He felt that in some way America was a work of God, but that the place of a Christian in the world didn’t have a lot to do with being in America.”
Garrison Keillor seems to have traveled a long way from those roots. True, he worships with a New York City Lutheran congregation. And true, his radio shows have a smattering of old hymn singing. But then there are more recent stories in the New Yorker magazine, and his latest book, a novel, WLT: A Radio Romance. In these there seems to be an increase of profanity and steamy humor that, while not prurient or obscene, simply provokes the question: What has made the man move in directions away from his family and early spiritual community?
Could the witty Garrison Keillor have become what he is today if he had remained in the society of a “Lake Wobegon”?
He believes leaving “home” was necessary. The break seems to have come when he went off to the University of Minnesota to study journalism, an experience he praises. There, in a larger world, he began to face the choices that would take him away from the cultural value system of rural Anoka, Minnesota, and, ultimately—many years later—to the big city of New York.
“I think if I had stayed in the Brethren it would have been difficult. I would have had to renounce the idea of success. They didn’t believe in any of that. They thought that was all delusion. A person had an obligation to work and support him-or herself, but that was about it. Your obligations were not to yourself, to your abilities, but centered around obedience to God.” Another smile punctuates this final comment as if to place it in boldface, to stress it as something one should remember.
Was it difficult to leave his roots? Keillor doesn’t answer directly, as if he had never thought about it in such terms. But this he does admit: “I was trying to play by my own rules and look as if I was playing by theirs. But that gets more and more difficult.” Has he changed much in his journey from “Lake Wobegon” to New York City? “We’re talking about a considerable passage of time. That’s more important than moving from a farm to the city. We’re talking about a difference between a child and a man in his forties. The God of my childhood is a God who sees all, and in my life as a child, he’s always looking.”
There’s a break here in Keillor’s reflections as he pushes a pencil to the other side of the desk, then a book, and then a file folder. And then he adds, almost as an aside: “But also your dead relatives are out there; they’re watching. And so you ‘hesitate’ your thoughts.… Your old Scottish grandpa is up there, and he’s watching. And increasingly, as you get older, your thoughts are shameful—or what you’ve been brought up to imagine as shameful. These people were death on everything erotic.”
As he talks, you are hearing the same voice and mannerisms the radio audience hears on Saturday night as Keillor returns to yesteryear in Lake Wobegon, but the content is different. “As you get older, you cannot endure the gaze of that God and live. It’s unbearable. You have to put that merciless gaze out of your mind or you would become a nut living in a mobile home at the end of a long dirt road with his cats, sitting out there eating acorns. Against that pitiless gaze is the vision of Christ the Shepherd with which we also grew up. And there’s the miraculousness of the gospel, which you learn more and more about as you get older.
“After a long lapse, after a long absence, you come back. I came back. And the pitiless gaze is gone somehow.”
The Garrison Keillor many of us know through his stories continues on a spiritual journey. The process will undoubtedly be affected by his experience in the spotlight. In the meantime, we can delight in the stories, even if some wish the teller had found it possible to stay closer to home.
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